Design challenges for short-session gaming

Screenshot of a particularly funny Elite Beat Agents sequence

I’ve just fin­ished read­ing an excel­lent series of post by two video game jour­nal­ists on the appar­ent revival of short-ses­sion games. (What’s not to love about an arti­cle that fin­ishes by assert­ing that Desk­top Tow­er Defense beats BioShock at its own mechan­ic?) It’ll be in tomorrow’s link post but here’s the link any­way. Being involved with a casu­al gam­ing project myself late­ly, I’ve spent a some time think­ing about what the design chal­lenges for this sub-genre are. In oth­er words: what make short-ses­sion games hard to pull off? I think it breaks down to these things:

  1. You need to get the play­er in flow as soon as pos­si­ble. This means you can’t both­er him with lengthy intros (or even menus). It also means the game’s mechan­ics should be as self-explana­to­ry as pos­si­ble. I’m remind­ed of the first time I start­ed up Elite Beat Agents the oth­er day and was giv­en a super-short tuto­r­i­al on how to play the game, then was dumped into the action right away (this is good).
  2. No sto­ries please. Short-ses­sion gam­ing forces you to design for play, not for nar­ra­tive (as it should be, in my opin­ion). It’s about giv­ing the play­er an engag­ing activ­i­ty and inter­est­ing choic­es, noth­ing more.
  3. Tra­di­tion­al dis­tri­b­u­tion mod­els make no sense for small games. Luck­i­ly, we now have net­work con­nec­tiv­i­ty on vir­tu­al­ly all gam­ing devices (not to men­tion PCs and mobile phones). The wait is for an open plat­form for game devel­op­ers to exper­i­ment on while at the same time being able to make a buck. But even now, net­worked mar­ket­places on con­soles have encour­aged exper­i­men­ta­tion.
  4. The visu­al lay­er does not have to be retro. Although most short-ses­sion game expe­ri­ences remind us of the good old games from the begin­ning days of elec­tron­ic gam­ing, there’s no rea­son why these games should look retro.
  5. Throw some of that pro­cess­ing at the rules, not the visu­als. Short-ses­sion, small and sim­ple don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly mean crude. Don’t go all-out on my 4th point’s visu­als with­out for­get­ting about all the cool com­plex behav­iours you can cre­ate with today’s proces­sors.

There’s much more to think and talk about, but I think these are the high­lights. Par­tic­u­lar­ly get­ting peo­ple into flow ASAP and cou­pling this with inter­est­ing dis­tri­b­u­tion mech­a­nisms is I think worth some more dis­cus­sion.

Mirroring mental models — games modelling players

Will Wright demoing Spore at TED 2007

Today I sent in the slides of my Euro IA Sum­mit pre­sen­ta­tion for the pro­ceed­ings. The rough out­line of my talk is done, the most impor­tant thing now is to find the prop­er exam­ples to illus­trate all the fuzzy the­o­ret­i­cal think­ing. That means (at least for me) doing a lot of Flickr pho­to search­es. This time I’ll also be exper­i­ment­ing with using some short video-clips. Games are bet­ter seen in motion after all (and best expe­ri­enced through play of course). Chron­i­cling my think­ing on the sub­ject of play­ful IAs on this blog has been very help­ful in organ­is­ing my thoughts by the way, I’ll def­i­nite­ly try it again the next time I need to do a talk.

On mental models

One idea I man­aged to squeeze into the pre­sen­ta­tion in addi­tion to the stuff I’ve been blog­ging about so far is about men­tal mod­els. I think it was Ben Cer­ve­ny who men­tioned in his Reboot 7.0 talk (MP3) that some of the plea­sure of play­ing games is derived from the grad­ual men­tal mod­el build­ing a play­er goes through. The play­er uses the visu­al lay­er of a game to learn about the under­ly­ing struc­tures. When a play­er mas­ters a game, the visu­al lay­er more or less fades away and becomes a sym­bol­ic land­scape through which he manip­u­lates a far rich­er mod­el of the game in his mind.

From a UX per­spec­tive because usu­al­ly when design­ing web sites and apps we try to adhere to exist­ing men­tal mod­els as much as pos­si­ble to pre­vent con­fu­sion and frus­tra­tion. This is a very valid approach of course. How­ev­er, regard­less of how well done the UX design, there will always be some men­tal mod­el­ling on the user’s part. Best make this as engag­ing as pos­si­ble I guess. This, again, is where games come in.

Will Wright acknowl­edges the fact that play­ers build mod­els of a game but he pro­pos­es to take it one step fur­ther. In an old(ish) talk at Accel­er­at­ing Change 2004 he pro­posed the idea that a game can con­struct a mod­el of the play­er as well. Par­al­lels with online rec­om­men­da­tion engines are appar­ent here. As Wright points out, in games (as in web envi­ron­ments) every­thing can be mea­sured. This way, the expe­ri­ence can be tai­lored to a player/user. He’s apply­ing this prin­ci­ple in the upcom­ing Spore, where game con­tent (cre­at­ed by oth­er play­ers) is dynam­i­cal­ly includ­ed based on inferred play­er pref­er­ences.

It can be argued that cer­tain web pro­fes­sion­als are way ahead of the games indus­try in this field. Per­haps there are some inter­est­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties for col­lab­o­ra­tion or career moves here?

The experience of playful IAs

Solving a Rubik's Cube

It’s time for a short update on my think­ing about Play­ful IAs (the top­ic of my Euro IA Sum­mit talk). One of the under-served aspects so far is the actu­al user expe­ri­ence of an archi­tec­ture that is play­ful.

Bri­an Sut­ton-Smith describes a mod­el describ­ing the ways in which games are expe­ri­enced in his book Toys as Cul­ture. I first came across this book in (not sur­pris­ing­ly) Rules of Play. He lists five aspects:

  1. Visu­al scan­ning
  2. Audi­to­ry dis­crim­i­na­tion
  3. Motor respons­es
  4. Con­cen­tra­tion
  5. Per­cep­tu­al pat­terns of learn­ing

Of most impor­tance to my sub­ject is the 5th one.

Game design, like the design of emer­gent IAs is a 2nd order design prob­lem. You can only shape the user’s expe­ri­ence indi­rect­ly. One of the most impor­tant sources of plea­sure for the user is the way you offer feed­back on the ways he or she has explored and dis­cov­ered the infor­ma­tion space.

Obvi­ous­ly, I’m not say­ing you should make the use of your ser­vice delib­er­ate­ly hard. How­ev­er, what I am say­ing is that if you’re inter­est­ed in offer­ing a play­ful expe­ri­ence on the lev­el of IA, then Sutton-Smith’s per­cep­tu­al pat­terns of learn­ing is the best suit­ed expe­ri­en­tial dimen­sion.

Learning about emergence from games

A game of Go

I’m still try­ing to get a grip on why I think games are such a good ref­er­ence point for IAs and IxDs. I’ll try to take anoth­er stab at it in this post. Pre­vi­ous­ly I wrote about how games might be a good way to ‘sell’ algo­rith­mic archi­tec­tures to your client. Even if you’re not active­ly push­ing your clients to adopt ideas such as on-the-fly cre­ation of site nav­i­ga­tion, soon­er or lat­er I’m con­vinced you’ll find your­self con­front­ed with a project where you’re not asked to devel­op a defin­i­tive infor­ma­tion archi­tec­ture. Instead you’ll be charged with the task to come up with mech­a­nisms to gen­er­ate these pro­ce­du­ral­ly. When this is this case, you’re tru­ly fac­ing a sec­ond-order design prob­lem. How can games help here?

One of the defin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics of games are their com­plex­i­ty. A few years ago Ben Cer­ve­ny gave a bril­liant talk on play (MP3) at Reboot 7.0 and men­tioned this specif­i­cal­ly — that much of the plea­sure derived from game-play is the result of the play­er com­ing to terms with com­plex pat­terns. This com­plex­i­ty is some­thing dif­fer­ent from pure ran­dom­ness and most cer­tain­ly dif­fer­ent from a ‘mere’ state machine. In oth­er words, games show emer­gence.

There are many exam­ples of emer­gent sys­tems. The Game of Life springs to mind. This sys­tem isn’t real­ly a game but shows a remark­able rich­ness in pat­terns, despite (or maybe because of) the fact that it is based on a set of decep­tive­ly sim­ple rules (which appar­ent­ly took its cre­ator, John Con­way, over 2 years to per­fect!) The thing is though, The Game of Life is not inter­ac­tive.

A won­der­ful exam­ple of a com­plex emer­gent sys­tem that is inter­ac­tive is the real game Go. It has a set of very sim­ple rules, but play­ing it well takes a huge amount of prac­tice. The joy of play­ing Go for me (an absolute begin­ner) is large­ly due to dis­cov­er­ing the many dif­fer­ent per­mu­ta­tions play can go through.

So get­ting back to my ear­li­er remark: If you’re con­vinced you’ll need to get a bet­ter han­dle on solv­ing the sec­ond-order design prob­lems pre­sent­ed by the design of com­plex emer­gent sys­tems, games are an excel­lent place to start learn­ing. They are emer­gent first and inter­ac­tive sec­ond, the per­fect twin to the web envi­ron­ments we’ll be shap­ing in the future.

UX and the aesthetics of interactivity

Tetris cookies

I’ve been try­ing to reg­u­lar­ly post some thoughts on the top­ic of play­ful IA here. Pre­vi­ous­ly I blogged about how games could be a use­ful frame for think­ing about com­plex algo­rith­mic archi­tec­tures. Last week I post­ed some thoughts on the appli­ca­tion of game mechan­ics in web apps. There, Rahul was kind enough to point me to the fas­ci­nat­ing blog of ‘Danc’ Daniel Cook, titled Lost Gar­den, where there is one post in par­tic­u­lar that res­onates with my own pre-occu­pa­tions late­ly.

In ‘Short thoughts on games and inter­ac­tion design’ (which hon­est­ly isn’t that short) Danc Cook looks at some of the ways game design tech­niques can be applied to the inter­ac­tion design of web apps. In sum­ma­ry, accord­ing to Danc Cook game design tech­niques allow you to:

  1. Cre­ate an engag­ing expe­ri­ence that goes beyond sim­ply com­plet­ing a task effi­cient­ly.
  2. Sup­port free and deep explo­ration and intro­duce and teach new inter­ac­tions that vio­late con­ven­tions.

Some things you shouldn’t bor­row from games with­out giv­ing it a lot of thought are:

  1. Spa­tial metaphors
  2. Visu­al themes

These are some of the things most peo­ple think of first as char­ac­ter­is­tic of games but real­ly, they are only sur­face, super­fi­cial, not deter­mi­nant of the actu­al inter­ac­tiv­i­ty of the sys­tem.

I think one of the great­est argu­ments for a deep­er under­stand­ing of games by inter­ac­tion design­ers, infor­ma­tion archi­tects and oth­er user expe­ri­ence spe­cial­ists is that they are the medi­um that is all about the aes­thet­ics of inter­ac­tiv­i­ty. It is true that they have no util­i­tar­i­an char­ac­ter, they aim to cre­ate a plea­sur­able expe­ri­ence through sys­tems of risks and rewards, restraints and free­doms, nest­ed feed­back loops and on and on. As a UX prac­ti­tion­er, it can nev­er hurt to have a deep appre­ci­a­tion of the aes­thet­ics of the medi­um you work in dai­ly (beyond sim­ply sup­port­ing user goals, or sell­ing prod­uct, or what­ev­er).

Game mechanics in web apps

A while ago there was a dis­cus­sion on the IAI mem­bers list about game mechan­ics on web sites. Andrew Hin­ton point­ed to the Google Image Label­er and LinkedIn’s ‘pro­file com­plete­ness’ sta­tus bar and asked: “Can any­one else think of a use of a game mechan­ic like this to jump-start this kind of activ­i­ty?” (Where “this kind of activ­i­ty” is basi­cal­ly defined as some­thing peo­ple wouldn’t nor­mal­ly do for its own sake, like say tag­ging images.)

I was think­ing about this for a while the past week and seem to have end­ed up at the fol­low­ing:

Profile completeness status bar on LinkedIn

On LinkedIn, hav­ing a (more or less com­plete) pro­file pre­sum­ably serves some extrin­sic goal. I mean, by doing so you maybe hope you’ll land a new job more eas­i­ly. By slap­ping a sta­tus bar onto the pro­file that gives feed­back on its com­plete­ness, the assump­tion is that this will stim­u­late you to fill it out. In oth­er words, LinkedIn seems unsure about the pres­ence of extrin­sic moti­va­tions and is intro­duc­ing an intrin­sic one: get­ting a 100% ‘com­plete’ pro­file and as such mak­ing a game (in a very loose sense of the term) out of its pro­fes­sion­al net­work ser­vice. A good idea? I’m not sure…

Screenshot of Google Image Labeler

On Google Image Label­er, the start­ing point for its design was to come up with a way to have peo­ple add meta-data to images. Google actu­al­ly ‘bought’ the game (orig­i­nal­ly called The ESP Game) from CAPTCHA inven­tor Luis von Ahn, who before that did reCAPTCHA and after went on to cre­ate Peek­a­boom and Phetch. Any­way, in the case of the Image Label­er (con­trary to LinkedIn) there was no real extrin­sic goal to begin with so a game had to be cre­at­ed. Sim­ply hav­ing fun is the only rea­son peo­ple have when labelling images.

Note that Flickr for instance has found oth­er ways to get peo­ple to tag images. What hap­pened there is (I think) a very nice way of align­ing extrin­sic goals with intrin­sic (fun, game-like) ones.

Pure’ games by their very nature have only intrin­sic goals, they are arti­fi­cial and non-util­i­tar­i­an. When you con­sid­er intro­duc­ing game-like mechan­ics into your web site or appli­ca­tion (which pre­sum­ably serves some exter­nal pur­pose, like shar­ing pho­tos) think care­ful­ly about the extrin­sic moti­va­tions your users will have and come up with game-like intrin­sic ones that rein­force these.

Update: Alper fin­ished the LinkedIn pro­file com­plete­ness game and was dis­ap­point­ed to find there is no pot of gold at the end of the rain­bow, mir­ror­ing the expe­ri­ence many play­ers of real games have when fin­ish­ing a game.

Slides and video of my Reboot 9.0 talk

So I’ve been busy upload­ing stuff. The slides to my Reboot 9.0 talk are up at SlideShare. I uploaded a video record­ed by Iskan­der with his N70 to Vimeo. Final­ly, since SlideShare still doesn’t import the notes that go with the slides in Pow­er­Point, I’ve also put up a big PDF (almost 50 MB). Please refer to the notes in the PDF for all the Flickr pho­to cred­its too.

Slides

Video

Mobile Social Play @ Reboot 9.0 from Kaeru on Vimeo

Notes

  • There’s a bit too much um-ing and ah-ing for my tastes. I need to do more prac­tice, prac­tice, prac­tice before these things!
  • This will be the last time I use Darth Vad­er as the open­ing slide, I promise.
  • It’s too bad I didn’t have more time to go into the exam­ples that go with the last part. Next time: less stage set­ting, more meat.
  • Still, I had fun. :-) Thanks again to Thomas for hav­ing me, and all the cool peo­ple at Reboot for going easy on me.

See me talk on mobile social play at Reboot 9.0

I got awe­some news the oth­er day: my pro­pos­al for a talk at Reboot 9.0 has been accept­ed. I’m very hon­oured (and a lit­tle ner­vous) to be pre­sent­ing at a con­fer­ence with so many smart atten­dees. Now to get my act togeth­er and cre­ate a kick-ass pre­sen­ta­tion.

If you have any­thing relat­ed to this (pret­ty broad) top­ic that you’d want me to address, please do leave a note in the com­ments.

One thing’s for sure: I’ll try to build upon what has gone before at pre­vi­ous Reboots, such as Ben Cerveny’s mind-blow­ing overview (MP3) of how play is essen­tial­ly becom­ing a new lan­guage for us to com­mu­ni­cate with and TL Taylor’s great talk on the dynam­ics of vir­tu­al worlds.

What I will be address­ing is still slight­ly unclear to me, but the direc­tion I’m head­ed is:

  1. Games can be social play, which means they can be used to forge and exper­i­ment with social rela­tions in a ‘safe’ way. This hap­pens whether you design for it or not, but can be nur­tured.
  2. When games go mobile, the bor­ders of the space and time in which a game is played are blurred. In this way, games bleed over into cul­ture in a grad­ual way.

Enough to chew on for one talk, I guess. Again, any ques­tions, com­ments and sug­ges­tions are more than wel­come. See you all at Reboot 9.0.

Spatial metaphors in IA and game design

Look­ing at dom­i­nant metaphors in dif­fer­ent design dis­ci­plines I’m in some way involved in, it’s obvi­ous to me that most are spa­tial (no sur­pris­es there). Here’s some thoughts on how I think this is (or should be) chang­ing. Infor­ma­tion archi­tec­ture tends to approach sites as infor­ma­tion spaces (although the web 2.0 hype has brought us a few ‘new’ ones, on which more lat­er.) I do a lot of IA work. I have done quite a bit of game design (and am re-enter­ing that field as a teacher now.) Some of the design­ers in that field I admire the most (such as Molyneux and Wright) approach games from a more or less spa­tial stand­point too (and not a nar­ra­tive per­spec­tive, like the vast major­i­ty do). I think it was Molyneux who said games are a series of inter­est­ing choic­es. Wright tends to call games ‘pos­si­bil­i­ty spaces’, where a play­er can explore a num­ber of dif­fer­ent solu­tions to a prob­lem, more than one of which can be viable.

I don’t think I’m going any­where in par­tic­u­lar here, but when look­ing at IA again, as I just said, the field is cur­rent­ly com­ing to terms with new ways of look­ing at the web and web sites; the web as a net­work, web as plat­form, the web of data, and so on. Some of these might ben­e­fit from a more pro­ce­dur­al, i.e. game design-like, stance. I seem to remem­ber Jesse James Gar­rett giv­ing quite some atten­tion to what he calls ‘algo­rith­mic archi­tec­ture’ (using Ama­zon as an exam­ple) where the IA is actu­al­ly cre­at­ing some­thing akin to a pos­si­bil­i­ty space for the user to explore.

Per­haps when we see more cross-pol­li­na­tion between game design and infor­ma­tion archi­tec­ture and inter­ac­tion design for the web, we’ll end up with more and more sites that are not only more like desk­top appli­ca­tions (the promise of RIA’s) but also more like games. Wouldn’t that be fun and inter­est­ing?

Three cool projects out of the Art, Media and Technology faculty

So a week ago I vis­it­ed a project mar­ket at the Art, Media and Tech­nol­o­gy fac­ul­ty in Hil­ver­sum which is part of the Utrecht School of Arts and offers BA and MA cours­es in Inter­ac­tion Design, Game Design & Devel­op­ment and many oth­ers.

The range of projects on show was broad and won­der­ful­ly pre­sent­ed. It proves the school is still able to inte­grate arts and crafts with com­mer­cial and soci­etal rel­e­vant think­ing. All projects (over 40 in total) were by mas­ter of arts stu­dents and com­mis­sioned by real world clients. I’d like to point out three projects I par­tic­u­lar­ly enjoyed:

Koe

A tan­gi­ble inter­face that mod­els a cow’s insides and allows vet­eri­nary stu­dents to train at much ear­li­er stage than they do now. The cow mod­el has real­is­tic organs made of sil­i­con (echoes of Real­doll here) and is hooked up to a large dis­play show­ing a 3D visu­al­iza­tion of the student’s actions inside the cow. Crazy, slight­ly gross but very well done.

Haas

A nar­ra­tive, lit­er­ary game called ‘Haas’ (Dutch for hare) that allows the play­er to intu­itive­ly draw the lev­el around the main char­ac­ter. The game’s engine remind­ed me a bit of Chris Craw­ford’s work in that it tracks all kinds of dra­mat­ic pos­si­bil­i­ties in the game and eval­u­ates which is the most appro­pri­ate at any time based on avail­able char­ac­ters, props, etc. Cute and pret­ty.

Entertaible

A game devel­oped for Philips’ Enter­taible which is a large flat pan­el mul­ti-touch dis­play that can track game pieces’ loca­tion, shape and ori­en­ta­tion and has RFID capa­bil­i­ties as well. The game devel­oped has the play­ers explore a haunt­ed man­sion (stun­ning­ly visu­al­ized by the stu­dents in a style that is rem­i­nis­cent of Pixar) and play a num­ber of inven­tive mini-games. Very pro­fes­sion­al­ly done.

For a taste of the project mar­ket you can check out this pho­to album (from which the pho­tos in this post are tak­en) as well as this video clip by Dutch news­pa­per AD.

Full dis­clo­sure: I cur­rent­ly teach a course in game design for mobile devices and ear­li­er stud­ied inter­ac­tion and game design between 1998 and 2002 at the same school.